POSTED: December 20, 10:52 AM EDT | By Matt Taibbi
It took more than two years, but there might finally be some capital sentences handed out for crimes committed during the financial crisis. That’s metaphorically speaking, of course. Like the accounting firm Arthur Anderson, whose head was sacrificed during the Enron debacle, the once-proud financial auditing firm Ernst and Young now looks poised to take a spin down the toilet of history thanks to its role in the Lehman Brothers debacle.
New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is about to file civil fraud charges against E&Y for the work it did helping Lehman cook its books during 2007 and 2008. The short version of what happened goes something like this. Lehman Brothers, like all the other big banks on Wall Street in those years, was nearing insolvency and desperate for cash. In advance of its quarterly reports in 2007, the firm executed a series of something called Repo 105 transactions in an attempt to make their balance sheet look healthier than it was.
These Repo 105 transactions are just loans that Ernst and Young and Lehman Brothers conspired to book as revenue from sales. If I go to you and I ask you to lend me a hundred bucks to pay for Knicks tickets, that’s a loan, and you and I and the SEC and every investor on Wall Street all know I’m in debt to you, that I owe you a hundred bucks.
Here’s how Lehman Brothers paid for their Knicks tickets: a week before the game, they went to you and offered to you “sell” you their worthless puke-stained lava lamp for a hundred bucks, with the understanding that two days after the Knicks game, it would come back and “buy” the lamp back for the same $100 (plus a small commission for your trouble). And when Lehman pocketed that $100 from the initial transaction, they decided to call that not borrowing but a true sale, i.e. they booked that hundred bucks as revenue from an honest sale of a worthless piece-of-shit lava lamp.
In 2007 and 2008 Lehman would do this before the end of every quarter. They would "sell" billions of dollars of assets, typically bonds, to various companies, and use that money to pay down debt before the quarter’s end, so that they didn’t look so flat-ass broke to investors. Then, a week or so after the end of the quarter, they would go out and borrow more money, and then "buy" the assets back. The reasons they did this were myriad, but in most cases the assets they were "selling" were depressed in value at the time and could not have been sold at anything like face value had they really gone out on the market and tried. So instead of really "selling" these items on their balance sheet, they worked together with other companies to jury-rig these “repurchase” agreements that looked like sales but were actually loans.
Lehman was doing massive amounts of these deals every quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, they lightened up their balance sheets with $50 billion worth of Repo agreements. This technique, apparently known as "window dressing," isn’t that much different conceptually from the Enron-style book-doctoring that used "independent" special purpose vehicles to hide liabilities. In this case Lehman didn’t use shell companies but instead scattered its dent in the financial atmosphere by booking loans as sales. Ernst and Young, which made over $100 million in fees between 2001 and 2008 working with Lehman, aided the process by signing off on Lehman’s crazy accounting. In the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas that came out last March, he describes how Ernst and Young threw up a brilliant "We’re not corrupt, we’re just incredibly stupid" defense when confronted with the question of the $50 billion in Repo 105s in the second quarter of 2008. The report (a PDF of which you can view here) talks about what E&Y’s Lehman auditor Hillary Hansen had to say when future E&Y whistleblower Michael Lee confronted her about the $50 billion in Repos:
During the Examiner’s interview of Hansen, Hansen recalled that while Ernst & Young questioned Lee about his May 16, 2008 letter, Lee "rattled off" a list of additional issues and concerns he held, one of which was Lehman’s use of Repo 105 transactions. Ernst & Young had no further conversations with Lee about Repo 105 transactions. Prior to her interview of Lee in June 2008, Hansen had heard the term Repo 105 “thrown around” but she did not know its meaning…In other words, the lead auditor reviewing one of the world’s largest investment banks had no idea what a series of regularly-occurring billion-dollar transactions committed by her main client were, and apparently wasn’t interested. It also didn’t seem to bother E&Y that Lehman was not disclosing any of this to its investors in its SEC filings.
My guess is that this suit is the beginning of the end for Ernst and Young and, who knows, may be the beginning of a series of investigations that ultimately take down the auditors and ratings agencies that made the financial crisis possible. Without accountants and raters signing off on all the bogus derivative math and bad bookkeeping, a lot of this mess would never have happened. Zero Hedge has an excellent piece detailing all the ass-covering and finger-pointing going on at Ernst and Young; check it out if you have time.